Libyan Prime Minister Is Kidnapped, Then Freed

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CAIRO -- Libya's prime minister, Ali Zeidan, was kidnapped from a hotel in the capital, Tripoli, on Thursday and briefly held in an apparent act of retaliation for his presumed consent to the capture of a suspected Qaeda leader by an American commando team.

He was seized before dawn and freed by early afternoon, according to Amal al-Jarrari, a spokeswoman for the prime minister's office, who could not immediately provide details.

The short kidnapping was an ominous sign for the stability of Libya's transitional government and its cooperation with American counterterrorist efforts. Mr. Zeidan's abductors are members of one of the semiautonomous militias that serve as his government's primary police and security force, according to statements from the prime minister's office and a coalition of militia leaders.

A spokesman for the coalition, which calls itself the Operations Room of Libya's Revolutionaries, said the prime minister's "arrest" came after a statement by Secretary of State John Kerry that "the Libyan government was aware of the operation" that captured the suspected Qaeda leader, Reuters reported.

The prime minister's kidnapping was the most serious blow yet to the credibility of Libya's fragile transitional government. And it could also be a grave setback for American efforts to hunt down other terrorist suspects believed to be at large on Libyan soil, including those suspected of playing a role in an attack last year on the United States diplomatic mission in Benghazi, which killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

Mr. Zeidan's government has said it had no warning or knowledge of the American commando raid on Saturday in which Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, the suspected Qaeda leader, was captured. The government demanded an explanation for what it called "the kidnapping of a Libyan citizen" on the streets of the capital.

At a news conference on Tuesday, Justice Minister Salah al-Maghrani appeared shocked by the raid: "The news itself was definitely a surprise," he said. "And having seen the prime minister the same night, I have not seen someone more surprised than the prime minister, Ali Zeidan."

But United States officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Mr. Zeidan's government had secretly authorized the arrest of Mr. Ruqai and possibly other arrests. Members of the Libyan Parliament have vowed to remove him from office if evidence emerges that he knew of the raid in advance.

The kidnapping was another sign that Libya is sliding toward anarchy two years after the revolution that ended Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's four decades of dictatorship. And it may also be a warning to other Libyan officials who contemplate collaborating with the United States in its pursuit of terror suspects.

Mr. Zeidan, 62, was seized at the Corinthian, a heavily guarded luxury hotel that he and other government leaders use as a residence and a meeting place, reportedly without a gunfight or resistance.

With no credible armed force of its own, Mr. Zeidan's government remains chronically enfeebled by its dependence on the freewheeling militias that formed in the aftermath of the uprising against Colonel Qaddafi. The government still depends on the militias for some public security duties, but they periodically threaten to use force to meet their own government demands as well.

The abductions of Mr. Ruqai and Mr. Zeidan highlight the vexed and contradictory relationship between Libya and the United States since the NATO bombing campaign of 2011, which helped remove Colonel Qaddafi. Although most Libyans remain overwhelmingly grateful for the intervention, they still suspect Washington and the West of hegemonic ambitions. Although they may oppose Al Qaeda and denounce terrorism, Libyans across the political spectrum say they object to American military action on Libyan soil and the extradition of Libyan citizens for trial in American courts.

Those complaints have come to the fore since the raid that captured Mr. Ruqai, also known as Abu Anas al-Libi. A United States grand jury indicted him in 2000 for what prosecutors say was his role in the 1998 bombings of the United States Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

There has been widespread speculation that the United States will also seek to apprehend some of the suspects in the Benghazi attack, including a militia leader, Ahmed Abu Khattala, who lives and works openly in the city.

But the backlash over the Ruqai abduction and the retaliatory kidnapping of Mr. Zeidan are likely to complicate any such efforts. Mr. Zeidan, a former human rights lawyer who worked in Geneva and led an exiled opposition group, the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, was chosen as prime minister last fall with the backing of Parliament's two largest blocs: the relatively secular coalition formed around Mahmoud Jibril, a wartime civilian leader, and the moderate Islamist coalition formed by Libya's Muslim Brotherhood.

Since then, Mr. Zeidan has sought to strike a delicate balance between appealing to the West for help with Libyan security -- which would bolster his central government -- and avoiding any appearance of inviting foreign intervention. At the same time, he has struggled to resist pressure from the militia leaders without entering into an open confrontation he fears he would lose.

But he has come under heavy criticism from both sides. Some Islamists and militia leaders say they suspect him of conspiring with the West to take power away from the true guardians of Libya's liberty -- the militiamen, who call themselves "the revolutionaries." Others, meanwhile, accuse him of giving in to militia pressure, most notably when he acquiesced to a sweeping purge of officials with connections to the Qaddafi government in response to a siege of government buildings by armed militias.

David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Cairo, and Gerry Mullany from Hong Kong. Suliman Ali Zway contributed reporting from Tripoli, Libya, and Carlotta Gall from Tunis.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published October 10, 2013 2:01 PM


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